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Very Fast Train

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8:38 pm
September 21, 2010



posts 34

There was an interesting panel debate at a Canberra Business Council event last night about proposals for a Very Fast Train between Sydney through Canberra to Melbourne. While the event was intended to discuss population issues, alot of the interest seemed to be in the VFT issue.

While one of the speakers said there were more economic ways of reducing emissions than a VFT, another pointed to examples overseas where VFTs had been successful with smaller population bases than those in Australia. For example, the VFT between Seville and Madrid in Spain has been successful, even though the population of Seville is smaller than Adelaide and the population of Madrid no larger than Melbourne. A common feature of successful overseas VFTs has been that they have not been stand-alone private ventures but run by national agencies as part of national rail networks.

One could even look at the success of the light rail between Perth and Mandurah in WA which had been completed a couple of years ago on time and on budget.

The point was also made that the Sydney-Melbourne plane route is the third busiest in the world, and that you could mount an argument that a VFT would be cheaper than building a new international airport.

There was cynicism about the likely outcome of the proposed feasibility study of the VFT, given that there had been nine such studies done in the past and all had an engineering focus instead of looking at what needed to happen in the community and in Government to implement such a project successfully.

In question time, a member of the audience highlighted the adverse effect a chain link fence along the length of a VFT could have on biodiversity, because it would prevent free movement of wildlife across the VFT transport corridor – interesting point.

Anyway, Philip Adams from ABC Late Night Live hosted the debate and you can hear the debate by going to the ABC website.

8:01 pm
September 26, 2010



posts 60

Post edited 3:00 am – September 27, 2010 by Quetzal

Thanks, I'm glad someone listened to that entire panel discussion, I caught part of it.

We keep tripping over the economies of scale, or lack thereof, with the idea of an efficient train network. I'll admit, once upon a time I lived in country NSW on the hope that the then (this is in the 1990s) proposal to have a fast train between Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney with stops at major regional centres would occur – the idea evaporated because the economics went against it, leaving me feeling disappointed with the seeming lack of vision and 'courage' in Australia at the time. There's so much in Goulburn that isn't existent in Canberra eg., architecture, history etc yet for most people the 75 min drive to/from work is off putting, and it's not great for the planet. 

What seems to have been missing is a full discussion of all the different costs and benefits surrounding this idea, not just the financial bottom line. For example, what kind of long term benefits would be yielded for small, country towns which have been slowly dying assisted by highway bypasses, and the fact that services are not available to support their populations, which has been forcing this regional to urban drift for some decades now? This discussion has to be linked to how we distribute our population across our vast landscape and, for example, the revival of small towns in the Southern Highlands.

As anyone who takes the train to Sydney knows there's a number of stops along the way, but it's not affordable to take the train on a daily basis, nor even the bus (unless you live in Queanbeyan). From towns in our immediate region, people drive from Murrambateman, Bungendore, Wamboin, Captain's Flat etc. Apart from Deane's buses running from QBN I cannot think of any other regular bus service. There are many people who might prefer not to live in Canberra, but who have to work here, and I often wonder if these areas could be resuscitated through a more efficient transport network that links up to Canberra. 

It's understandable people would doubt the financial viability of such projects, particularly when viewed over short time horizons. We don't have the population densities that some countries have. Transport infrastructure rarely, if ever, turn large profits. One speaker on this panel said that the European (Spanish) experience was that the trains were not used for commuting (in response to a question from the audience) regularly to/from work between regional/small towns, but more for less frequent trips to the city. Moreover, someone suggested the experience was these transport options led to increased growth of major centres rather than the reverse. I'm not sure of all these arguments, but I'm pleased we're at least considering them all rather than dismissing the idea out of hand. I've been a bit concerned that we've all been too negative in our thinking. 

I'm in WA now. WA's train line from Perth to Mandurah is marvellous, it cost under ~$2bn to build and the eastern States could well do with the advice of the former Minister for Transport here who pushed through with a vision, despite a lot of criticism, and yet found in the end the service is very well utilised and generally much appreciated by sandgropers. Rates of use of the train in terms of 'bums on seats' have far outstripped projections. When I was a kid it took an hour to drive to coastal areas like Rockingham, Mandurah, Yanchep now it's all accessible via a pleasant, affordable and safe 1/2 train ride. Even the bus services in Perth have left Canberra for dead for the last decade or so – I've been travelling regularly enough between the two to make the comparison. 

Canberra's bus and train systems are shoddy, run down, and tatty. Apart from the implications for urban transport, it shames me to say this provides a negative impression of the nation's capital to foreign visitors. And if people think this shouldn't matter – think again. Australia is fast earning a reputation of being an expensive tourism destination to get to and stay. Looking at this issue with a 'cold eye' free of any parochialism, I can't imagine why anyone would come to Canberra at all for a holiday if they didn't have friends or business here. It's too hard to get around, service is rude and it's not good value for money. All this hoo haa about getting Oprah here will count for nothing if we don't make it easier for people to access our cultural sites more effectively. It's cheaper for my family to take 7 days in Bali from Perth than it would be to visit me in Canberra…and I can't blame them. 

Getting back to the issue of a VFT – the rail line to Sydney is the chief obstacle to a faster service – the line, not the train itself e.g., in patches around Molonglo Gorge area it is slowed down to a crawl because the line is so old that to push the train any faster would put the train at risk of running off the line. Let's not even talk about how the buses are falling to pieces, it gives us nothing to view with pride. Public transport investment has gone into the road system, and encourages private investment in the motor car. Why can't we build more toll roads directly financed by the users and redirect public investments into a more efficient train network?

If anyone's been to Kuala Lumpur recently, they should note the extremely efficient fast train that runs from the airport to the new seat of government in Putrajaya that saves in time and is cheap. Our neighbours in the region are outstripping us. Australia is becoming backward.

There's got to be a way forward on this, we ought to be taking our positive models from the region and leadership in other states as lessons to learn from on this!

12:45 am
September 27, 2010

John Symond


posts 70

Quetzal's post is so long it's hard to know where to begin in replying to it.

To begin with, toll roads are no solution to anything. They hamper the flow of traffic and introduce a whole lot of completely unnecessary administrative costs. In pre-industrial Europe, and pre-revolutionary France, tolls on the roads were common. It was considered a mark of progress when they were all removed, thereby encouraging trade and movement between regions. The modern revival of toll roads is an incredibly perverse throwback to an earlier era.

The most sensible way to diminish road traffic is to tax something that is a close proxy for the mileage travelled. How about fuel? Every time I look at issues like these, it seems to end up that we will make no real progress until we tax the burning of fossil fuels. 

2:30 am
September 27, 2010



posts 60

Yes too long sorry. 

Regarding your assertion that toll roads hamper flow of traffic, no I do not agree, it's never been my experience in other countries with wide use of toll roads.

I was getting at the fact that currently every tax payer in Australia, regardless of whether they own a car or not, pays for road building, upgrades and maintenance through some form of revenue raised through taxation. As soon as you fund registration of a car, you pay in addition for all this road length. The more road you build, the more people feel encouraged to use it, and 'indirect' forms of taxation to raise revenue to build it fails to send the message to consumers that all that road length 'costs'. Where toll roads are introduced, those who can afford to use them will pay for its construction (financing of long term debt) and maintenance. That should free up public revenues for other purposes, which are not as financially viable eg., mass transport systems. Toll roads are common in many developed and developing countries – they are not an historical anachronism. If they were, major companies like Macquarie would not have purchased major toll roads in the US as they have done expected a return on investment over the next 20 years or so.

Australia probably has some of the most roadway that is publicly subsidised on a per capita basis in the world. I'm not saying it's ideal to build toll roads. It does end up encouraging a two tiered national road system. But if you wanted a system which would reinforce people thinking twice about using a road then making them pay for a good quality road directly would be a way to get there. 

Yes, in agreement your point about the fuel. 

10:01 pm
September 28, 2010

John Symond


posts 70

Supporting toll roads on the grounds that they a profitable investment for Macquarie, is comparable to supporting smoking on the grounds that tobacco companies are profitable. It has no bearing on whether toll roads are a good way to build roads. 

If Australia has more kilometres of road per head than many other countries, it is probably because we have a small population scattered over a large landmass. 

It is very reasonable that much of the costs of roads should be borne by the whole community, because they enable services and activities that benefit the entire population.

Motor registration fees reasonably impose an additional charge on car users themselves, which reflects in an admittedly crude  way, the extra use made of the roads by car owners. 

Clearly the most equitable way to discourage car usage is to tax the fuel used because it is proportional to the road usage. 

Earlier you said

"If anyone's been to Kuala Lumpur recently, they should note the extremely efficient fast train that runs from the airport to the new seat of government in Putrajaya that saves in time and is cheap. Our neighbours in the region are outstripping us. Australia is becoming backward"

How long is the track? What numbers of passengers are carried? Is it a heavily subsidised prestige project? How did people make this journey before the rail line was built? Without knowing these things and many others we cannot make any judgment about this project. 

Earlier you said

"As anyone who takes the train to Sydney knows there's a number of stops along the way, but it's not affordable to take the train on a daily basis"

Why on earth would anyone want, or expect, to be able to go to Sydney on a daily basis? Living close to one's workplace is an established environmental principle.

I do not support a VFT as a service for super-commuters. It's justification is as an alternative to the heavy aircraft traffic between state capitals. If some super-commuting takes place as an after-effect, that's fine. But it's not the main purpose. 

5:06 am
September 30, 2010



posts 60

John, you seem so intent on criticising my points of view that I fear you are not seeing the forest for the trees. In fact, I'll be honest and say I find your expression of views aggressive and you seem consistently to miss the point. Perhaps you might like to take a step back and not attack other people for having a view that differs from yours? If you don't like my views, you're welcome not to read further. 

You don't agree with the idea of a VFT? Fine. A lot of people do want a VFT, and I put myself in that category. 

You'd like higher taxes on fuel to dissuade people from using it? Governments increase excise on fossil fuels all the time. I'm sure your wish will not be long in the execution as we move towards some form of carbon pricing. So long as there's some form of fuel to tax, the government will not be remiss in making it as expensive as it can without putting itself out of revenue altogether. That's what Treasury will help it work out – the marginal returns. 

You want people to walk, ride bikes, use the bus and use their cars less perhaps? Many of us trading views on climatexchange, I'd presume, feel the same way. But the reality is that not everyone has the luxury of living close to work, school and shops. It's not a choice some people can exercise. We live in a spread out way, as you admit yourself, because we are a small population occupying a very large landscape with great distances to cover. 

Therefore, Australians have to work out how to travel around this vast country in a way that does less damage than is currently the case. But we cannot not travel. That's just unrealistic. We can fly, we can drive, we can train, but somehow we have to get across the country. 

As to the train to Sydney, I was referring to people being able to commute between stops on the way to Sydney, not between Sydney and Canberra.

As to the issue of Malaysia's very fast train from Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, it's around 60km, takes 20 mins as averse to over an hour by car, the price of the ticket is about 1/4 the taxifare.  The train is used not simply to support the travel between the natural capital and the more recently built seat of government, it goes straight to the airport. I don't have the figures, but at a guess it looks very well used because of the all the travel to/from the airport and main train terminals, one of which is right across the road from two major hotels. For domestic and international business travellers, the train is a viable option compared to using a taxi – many people of various walks of life use the train. A prestige project? Possibly. But, I'd hazard more likely the Malaysians decided they needed a world class form of transport to match their world class airport and world class seat of government.

So, what's wrong with taking your earnings from exports and an affordable international loan from capital markets to build a train service that serves Malaysians of all walks of life to do business more effectively? By analogy, what would be wrong about Australians taking the budget surplus our previous government managed to acquire, on the back of consistent economic growth and low inflation for so many years, and spending it on a major piece of infrastructure that will free up how we live and do business?

I have no doubt you have some other devastating negative arguments to bring about why this is all such a bad idea. You're entitled to your views. Let others have theirs. 

6:28 pm
September 30, 2010

John Symond


posts 70

Post edited 8:15 am – November 11, 2010 by John Symond

Dear Quetzal

I am sorry to see that you are not coping with having your ideas questioned or challenged without branding me as 'aggressive'. 

re: “You're entitled to your views. Let others have theirs”

Quetzal, you are not being prevented from expressing your views (at great length)

This is a debate or discussion of ideas; of course there will be disagreement. 

If you read my posts again you will see that I do not oppose a VFT, in fact I support the idea. But it has to be economically justifiable. 

Thanks for the details on the Malaysian VFT (60km long). As I suspected it is totally incomparable with a line from Sydney to Melbourne, of perhaps 900 kilometres. These projects have to be evaluated case by case because the conditions are so different. 

It's good to see the elites (tourists, government officials and businessmen) are well served by the Malaysian line to the airport and the capital. They can afford 1/4 of a cab fare, which may be realistic, but I would not consider it 'cheap' for rail. 

Thanks for your invitation to 'step back'. But then – who would be there to question your ideas? 

With reference to: “If you don't like my views, you're welcome not to read further

Well, if I don't like your views, I plan to say why. Over to you…

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